Sunday, January 13, 2008

help yourself, it's 2008

Like Daily Biz, I've been mulling over Toad's trend predictions and came up with one to add to his list:

#7- Return of Service to Customer Service

I was grocery shopping the other day and the clerk at the register discontinued her (loud) conversation with the clerk in the next aisle, made eye contact with me and asked how I was--for which I felt inordinately grateful.

Since coming of age in an era when waiters did curb-service and elevator ladies in white gloves opened gates in dept. stores, I've downsized my expectations again and again until now I anticipate almost no service from service workers. (The nice clerk's bagger was busy deciding what to order for lunch, so naturally I bagged the groceries myself.)

Perhaps service workers get away with almost anything these days because they are an endangered species. It used to be pumping your own gas would save you a buck and you could make the choice to pump it yourself or not depending on how energetic (or strapped) you were feeling. Now, self-service is usually the only option, and even when full-service is offered, it's inexplicably the same price, unless you count not having to tip. (Exception: it's illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey and Oregon--not sure what this says about lawmakers' view of constituents there.)

Once gas pumping went manual, banks began doing away with tellers. ATMs weren't popular at first--people were scared machines might issue wrong amounts of money, or they'd be robbed by passersby who'd push them aside on the sidewalk and grab the cash being excreted. A friend in the business worked on a bank in the 80s that decided their strategic point of difference would be no ATM's. Headline: Would you rather deal with a human or a machine? Needless to say, the bank went out of business. But now might be prime time for it to make a resurgence: ever try to get a cashier's check or deposit a big payout at one of those ATM-only branches?

I bet I'm not the only consumer weary of superstores making me check out my own stuff or airlines refusing to let me talk to an attendant before dealing first with a kiosk. I predict that consumers will begin to fight back, insist on service that's been lacking of late, even if they have pay a bit more for it. And, in a culture where social status is inexorably linked to monetary value, customer service might transform into a noble profession.

CS professionals might take a lesson from ad grunts who have been servicing customers with a smile for years. Another revision? Want that with fries?


Anonymous said...

Great post.

Interestingly, my father used to own a golf retail company that struggled because their point of difference was service - so people would go there and learn about the clubs, etc and then go to the superstores where it was cheaper and but there.

The internet further dampened the amount of money people were willing to pay for service because consumer reviews were numerous and free.

I wish that service would come back, but it is hard to turn into actual money...

Alan Wolk said...

Thanks for the additional thought.

I agree with this one - though I happen to be a big advocate of service. I refuse to shop in department stores (by and large) and would rather pay a few dollars more at a smaller shop where the salesperson helps me pick out the gift and/or wardrobe staple I need, offers suggestions and generally makes it a pleasant experience. Ditto the local hardware store over Home Depot.

But my personal tastes aside, I see the Return of Service as indicative of the greater class division in the US. So the top 10% will make it our business to frequent stores where we are politely waited on in a pleasant environment by people who charge us a bit more for the luxury.

But service will likely get worse for the other 90%, as the businesses that cater to them compete on price alone and self-service becomes even more bare-bones.

I did a post a few months back about an article the Wall Street Journal's Laura Llandro did on her experience of (falsely) being accused of shoplifting at K-Mart, after she inadvertently put a pair of flip-flops into the wrong box. (She'd found them loose, in a messy bin.)

Her experience says a lot about the class structure of shopping.


Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

DB, Toad, thanks for thoughtful comments.

I know what you mean, DB. Same reason all those friendly little bookstores went out of business. (Well, not all, thankfully.) Perhaps my prediction is just wishful thinking. Unless, as Toad points out, there's coming a 2-tier shopping system--which according to that amazing WSJ article may already be in place. Can't believe Kmart PR didn't rush to do damage control. Must be the same team that handled McGreevey.